Bouncing towards me on his alligator-skin trainers, Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo opts for a one-armed hip-hop hug when at last we meet. Not only does he look the part – the shoes are by designer Philipp Plein, his T-shirt’s Calvin Klein and around his neck hangs a dazzling chain created by Jacob ‘The Jeweller’ Arabo, purveyor of ‘bling blings’ to the hip-hop elite – but he smells it, too: an almost suffocating cloud of lavender scent hangs in the air.
D’banj, as he shortens his name, is the biggest name in entertainment in Nigeria and has the potential to become the first-ever artist from Africa to compete on equal terms with any acts in the western pop firmament. It’s the brash, moneyed, sexy version of the continent – home to seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world – that he represents. Today he is in the UK promoting his Top 10 hit Oliver Twist, a ribald account of the famous women he fancies, from Nicki Minaj andRihanna to the Ghanaian actress Nadia Buhari. Recently he heard it being used as the background music to a party in EastEnders – precisely the sort of mainstream attention that he wants to receive.
It quickly becomes apparent that the 32-year-old, acclaimed by his peers back home in Lagos for his relentless drive, is difficult to stop once he’s on a roll. ‘I’m so excited – not just for me, but for the whole of Africa’, he says. ‘Two years ago I said it’s time for me to take my music global because I’ve won all the awards back home.’ With his mentor, the producer Don Jazzy, he created the biggest record label in Nigeria, but ‘now I want to win a Brit award, a Grammy’.
‘Yes, we have MTV, yes, we sell millions of records and have endorsement deals, but we’ve never felt as if we’re part of the same music industry as the rest of the world – the Kanye Wests, the Adeles and Tinie Tempahs,’ he continues. ‘I see what I’m doing now as the bridge that we’ve been looking for from Africa to the mainstream world. I want others to see the potential in my country, other than our oil and natural resources. That’s what’s making me move. I feel like a new artist.’
The first time I laid eyes on D’banj it was in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, in late 2008, when he waltzed away with three accolades including Artist of the Year at the first-ever MTV Africa Awards. Just before he turns up for our encounter in London, the ebullient Bankulli, his manager, shows me footage on YouTube of him on the promo trail in the UK, visiting a school in Plumstead demonstrating how to do the ‘Oliver Twist’ dance to a background of shrill screams from the pupils. It’s not just hard to think of another African artist who’d engender such a reaction at a south London secondary school, it’s tricky to think of that many homegrown pop stars who could incite quite as much hysteria. But over the past three or four years, there’s been a growing appetite for what are styled ‘Afro beats’ among that key pop demographic in this country.
Listen to DJ Abrantee‘s show on Choice FM on Saturday nights or DJ Edu on Radio 1 Extra with his Destination Africa programme on Sundays and you’ll hear the likes of Sarkodie and Efya (from Ghana) or Psquare, Wizkid and – especially – D’banj (all from Nigeria). Rickie Davies runs a website promoting Afro beats in the UK, and she describes ‘a real shift in perceptions among audiences in the UK. No one’s talking about this as if it’s ‘world music’,’ she says, ‘or alien to the culture here.’ Abrantee told me recently of the deeper impact of this burgeoning scene. ‘When I was growing up in London’, he said, ‘you never let on that your family came from Africa – it was too embarrassing. Everyone pretended they came from the Caribbean. But suddenly black kids from Ghana or Nigeria are saying it’s cool to come from there.’
‘It’s very humbling, my success here,’ D’banj says. ‘Coming from Africa – Nigeria – doing music for a decade there… it’s a different world.’
Ten days earlier, I’d flown to Nigeria to meet D’banj, and ended up on a whistle-stop tour of the Lagos nightlife scene with one of his younger peers. Ice Prince arrives at the Oriental Hotel with an entourage that includes his own bodyguard, a figure so strapping that he’d be slightly intimidating even without the Soviet assault rifle. As he explains, over the culinary challenge that is a bowl of egusi soup in a fast-food joint in the upmarket district of Lekki, he’s simply there to intimidate the sort of crazy fans that any fledgling pop star will encounter.
‘I can’t normally eat in a place like this’, Ice Prince explains. ‘I just get too much attention’. Instead he has a cook at home, and when he drives around the city in his white Land Rover, his assistant will pull bundles of naira banknotes out of a black bin liner to shower on the crowds who surround him – both a bid to distract them and, as it’s explained to me: ‘It’s expected of you here. If you don’t, people will start saying God thinks badly of you’.
In a nutshell, the 25-year old Panshak Zamani, who grew up in the northern city of Jos, listening to the likes of South African reggae star Lucky Dube and his pop counterpart Brenda Fassie – he now counts Jay-Z as his favourite artist – is living the life that he describes in his hit ‘Superstar’. ‘Better cars, better clothes on me/Better parties, better houses and better girls on me…’ runs the chorus. ‘See I can take you there/Champagne everywhere/That’s the life we live.’
The story of the Nigerian pop scene as it exists today – with its videos showing fast cars and faster women – doesn’t date back much further than a decade and reflects the booming economy in the country. GDP has more than doubled since 2005 and the growing middle class has an appetite for the affluent lifestyle that figures such as Ice Prince or D’banj embody. The latter tells me that ‘it used just to be footballers who got endorsement deals, but now entertainment is attracting a lot of media and investors, too.’
Ice Prince is contemplating offers from a drinks company and a telecoms outfit at the moment. Acts such as his can earn up to £20,000 for a live show – and without that income, rampant piracy would mean the music industry in the country would barely exist. Instead, in the absence of global players such as Sony and Universal, four or five labels – including Ice Prince’s Chocolate City, Storm Records, Kennis Musicand EME Music, and D’banj and Don Jazzy’s Mo’Hits – have competed for success.
‘There’s been mad growth in the music industry here,’ Ice Prince says, while acknowledging the problems with publishing and the collection of royalties. Nonetheless: ‘If you go to a club or a party in Lagos, 80% of the music that you’ll hear is Nigerian, which never used to be the case.’
Factor in the advent of MTV and other cable channels across Africa, – includingChannel O, BET (Black Entertainment Television) and the French network Trace – plus the new power of Twitter and social media, and little wonder that when an artist such as Ice Prince plays a show in Malawi, he’s greeted by crowds numbering in their thousands. He shows me footage of a recent gig on his Mac PowerBook. ‘This is new. They might not understand our patois, but the fans there know us from TV, and we’re famous right across the continent.’
Ice Prince has a gig to play in Abuja this evening, so he leaves me in the care of the most celebrated hip-hop star in the country, M.I, meaning Mr Incredible (or Jude Abaga, as he was christened). His posse – that’s now me, incongruously; the producer Kid Konnect and another rapper, the brilliant Loose Kaynon – end up swigging Hennessy at a party called SLU…shh in a mansion in Lekki where other acts including Davido and Tiwa Savage freestyle on the mic by the swimming pool. Come 3am the next day, we’re in Number 10, the nightclub on Victoria Island owned by Jay-Jay Okocha – the most famous Nigerian footballer of all time (later MI even introduces this drunken foreigner to him).
The following afternoon there’s a gig at the Teslim Balogun stadium: Coca-Cola is sponsoring a youth football tournament and paying for the accompanying entertainment. This means appearances between games from Davido, Brymo and then M.I himself. He sprints around the pitch, mic in hands, rapping along to the bellowing PA system, stopping only to goad members of the crowd who aren’t fellow Arsenal fans, before sprinting to his waiting car and a hairy ride out of the stadium before the vehicle is mobbed.
From there I head to the airport, regretting only that the figure I’d travelled to Lagos to see never actually materialised: D’banj himself. One of his representatives did arrive at the hotel with a bottle of Moët & Chandon and a Koko mobile – from his own branded mobile-phone line, launched last year – as gifts for me. But with it came the message that he’d preferred instead to go to the Cannes film festival with Kanye West – in order to help promote Kanye’s 30-minute movie Cruel Summer, shot in Qatar and featuring several artists signed to his G.O.O.D Music label, among whom D’banj can now count himself.
Born in Zaria in northern Nigeria to a military officer and a businesswoman, D’banj grew up just north of Lagos, becoming interested in music following the death of his 17-year-old brother Femi in an air crash in 1994. ‘I arranged all his possessions on his bed after they were brought home and just picked up his harmonica. I’d play it to remember him.’ Later, at university, he realised what his new skills with the instrument could bring him. ‘I’d go to the female hostel after lectures, and even if there was no electricity I could play there.’ He remembers learning Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ after Titanic came out – ‘and that got me a lot of girls!’
Plans to continue his studies as a mechanical engineer in London were derailed when he arrived in the UK in 2001 and met Don Jazzy. The 18-year-old – born Michael Collins Ajereh – had also come from Lagos and was trying to make it as a songwriter and producer, working with acts such as Big Brovaz (career highlight: the song they contributed to the soundtrack of Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed). D’banj started hanging around the studio, making ends meet with work as a security guard. ‘It was OK, because I did nights,’ he says, ‘so I could listen to music on my headphones.’
Don Jazzy told D’banj he thought he was a star in the making and, sensing that the music scene in Nigeria was ‘blossoming’, the pair returned to Lagos in 2004. That same year came the single ‘Tongolo’, the video paid for by D’banj’s mum – ‘Thank you, Mummy!’ – who’d hitherto been suspicious of his new-found calling, and then his first album, his first endorsement (with an energy drink called Power Fist) and ‘the rest is history’.
In fact, as Don Jazzy tells it, there was a definite plan with each landmark single. He’d clocked the success of Psquare across Africa, so with the next D’banj record, ‘Fall in Love’, he emulated their sound. With ‘Mr Endowed’, he went for ‘fist-pumping dance music’ – a risk at home in Nigeria, but it paid off in spades, and through the help of a mutual friend (jeweller Chris Aire), Snoop Dogg was brought in on a remix of the track. The impossibly infectious ‘Oliver Twist’ was a calculated attempt to crack the market in the UK. ‘I thought we could do with a sort of funky house sound. I thought: ‘It’s not like the music is that different from the music we listen to here.’‘
Listen to ‘Oliver Twist’, or Ice Prince’s ‘Superstar’, or P-Square’s ‘Chop My Money’ – which I heard blaring on Beat FM all weekend in Lagos, alongside the occasional likes of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ – and the production isn’t so dissimilar from any western pop hit. But as Ice Prince told me, there’s definitely an indigenous feel, too: ‘There’s a lot of American and UK influence, but the present Nigerian sound is really influenced by highlife and juju music. We made it a bit funky, a bit more modern.’
Prior to the likes of 2face Idibia and the brothers in Psquare and D’banj, the biggest name in Nigerian music remained the late Fela Kuti, and Don Jazzy cites the influence of his ‘Afro beat’ sound, too. It’s a source of some irritation that what he calls his ‘Afro pop’ is termed ‘Afro beats’ in the UK, when ‘what we do now sounds totally different’.
With D’banj, Jazzy built Mo’Hits records, also signing the likes of Wande Coal. But earlier this year, the pair split, following D’banj’s decision to sign to Kanye West’s label and relocate on a more or less permanent basis to the UK and US.
In D’banj’s telling of it, he and his entourage were in the first-class lounge at Dubai airport in November 2010 after playing a gig when a stewardess approached with a name card that said ‘Mr Kanye West’. ‘I was looking fly – if you know anything about D’banj, you know I’m always looking on point. I say: ‘Dress how yon: ‘That means Kanye West is coming, let’s get rolling… Eyes open!’ Then we saw him, checking in, wearing a hoodie. I said: ‘If I get five minutes, I will take it. I’m an African man! I will not waste it!’ And he came and five minutes became 30 minutes and he held my plane for me, because I would have missed it. In fact the first thing he said was: ‘I like your dress sense…’‘
The story of D’banj’s split with Don Jazzy has dominated the Nigerian entertainment press all year. The week after I leave Lagos there are even (false) rumours that D’banj has been shot by three gunmen near Kanye’s Atlanta residence, then rushed to the city’s St Joseph’s hospital and is dying from his wounds. There doesn’t seem to be much substance to the idea of hostilities, although Don Jazzy did cut a slightly forlorn figure when I met him in his half-built mansion in a gated compound on the outskirts of Lekki. ‘Every day I’d wake up, I’d be scared to look at the newspaper or go to the internet to see what people are saying now,’ he said. ‘It’s been blown out of all proportion.’
While he also has a deal with GOOD Music as a producer, Jazzy intends to concentrate on his new venture, MAVIN records, and those acts still signed to him, including Dr SID, Tiwa Savage and Wande Coal. He says now of D’banj: ‘he’s a very ambitious person and he works hard: I give it to him. I’m glad that we’ve been able to get to the point where he can go to the UK and the US and stand as a man. I don’t need to be carrying him – there’s other people who need help here now.’
When D’banj and I do meet, he’s mollifying. ‘It’s like we were married – a very successful marriage,’ he says, ‘and we just had a divorce.’ There are also those voices, he knows, who think that now he’s tasted success in the UK, he’ll turn his back on Nigeria, but he’s adamant. ‘I can’t wait for the world to see what we have in Africa. I tell Kanye and everyone, I’ve got rappers back home who can really rap. MI is going to murder everybody! I had a vision that I want to be global,’ he says, ‘but I don’t want to change my Nigerian identity, I don’t want to change my style.’
In person, he radiates such easy-going star quality that it’s impossible to begrudge him anything, or to think that he won’t help pave the way for others. (In fact, just days after we speak, Ice Prince joins him on the bill for the BBC’s Hackney Weekend festival).
The final question I put to him – and it’s the sort of question that a lot of his peers in the UK and US would shirk – is whether his Afro beats hold a mirror up to society in the same way that Fela Kuti’s did. D’banj argues that today’s stars are simply reaping the rewards of battles Fela won, that ‘things are better – there’s not just freedom of speech. For instance, we’ve got social media.’
At the last Nigerian elections, D’banj was courted by presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan and filmed a video in support that was subsequently credited with ensuring his success. Any flak that the singer attracted as a result deters him little – even if the raging fuel-subsidy issues in the country have overtaken the promise in his clip on YouTube of ‘no shortage of fuel and kerosene’. Perhaps it’s a reminder that on any road to progress there are always setbacks.
‘We’re enjoying democracy now,’ D’banj insists, ‘and the economy is on the up and up. There’s also been so much negative coverage of Nigeria,’ he continues, ‘but I like to think that the message I preach through leading the lifestyle that I do is: anyone can make it.’
Source from The Guardian UK